Let's get this clear, I believe in eternal punishment.
I also believe that through Christ God will "reconcile all things to himself" (Col. 1.29). Is that a contradiction? Can you believe in eternal punishment and universal reconciliation?
After having talked about heaven in Chapter Two of Love Wins Rob Bell turns to the subject of hell in Chapter Three.
This chapter is an interesting ramble. In it Bell make a great many, generally disjointed, observations about hell. Consequently, as an argument the chapter isn't very clear or illuminating. But I'm not sure that's what Bell is going for. For the most part, I think Bell is more poet than logician. And I think there is power in his approach. By raising so many questions about hell Bell brings home the point that the word "hell" has been hollowed out, theologically speaking. Bell the poet is trying to restore the poetry of hell, the associative richness and thickness that has gone missing in many sectors of Christianity of the "turn or burn" persuasion.
So what are some of the observations Bell makes about hell in this chapter? A brief survey:
1. The Old Testament hardly mentions hell. And the New Testament not much either. It's just not a central doctrine.Does any of this add up to an argument? Not really. But again, I don't think that is what Bell is trying to do. I think he's trying to restore a bit of the mystery, complexity, and poetry to what has become a thin and hollowed out concept. Thus Bell's conclusion to the chapter:
2. Jesus talked a lot about the city dump outside of Jerusalem (Gehenna), but hell as we understand it?
3. In our otherworldiness we tend to miss the hells we find around us.
4. Hell is strong language, offensively so. But some evils require commensurate language ("Some agony needs agonizing language.")
5. Hell comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from individual evil to systemic injustice.
6. When Jesus talks about the "coming wrath" he was mainly talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
7. Jesus preached hell to religious people already a part of God's covenant. Hell is "insider" language.
8. The Old Testament visions of God's wrath repeatedly show two things: 1) Correction and 2) Ultimate restoration. These Old Testament teachings regarding God's judgment are strangely missing in Christian thinking.
9. Paul advocated handing believers "over to Satan" for their eventual salvation.
10. Aion, generally translated as "eternal", doesn't necessarily mean "forever and ever and ever." Aion often refers to an "age." Thus, "eternal punishment" can mean (as I take it to mean) "punishment in the next age."
To summarize, then, we need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in the God's world God's way.
And for that,
the word "hell" works quite well.
Let's keep it.